A good life for all within the planet's means

February 5, 2018, University of Leeds
A composite image of the Western hemisphere of the Earth. Credit: NASA

A study led by the University of Leeds has found that no country currently meets its citizens' basic needs at a globally sustainable level of resource use.

The research, published in Nature Sustainability, is the first to quantify the sustainability of national resource use associated with meeting basic human needs for 151 countries.

Each country's resource use and well-being achievements have been made available as a website built by the academics involved in the study.

Lead author, Dr Daniel O'Neill, from the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds, said: "Almost everything we do, from having dinner to surfing the Internet, uses resources in some way, but the connections between resource use and human well-being are not always visible to us.

"We examined international relationships between the sustainability of resource use and the achievement of social goals, and found that basic needs, such as nutrition, sanitation, and the elimination of extreme poverty, could most likely be achieved in all countries without exceeding global environmental limits.

"Unfortunately, the same is not true for other social goals that go beyond basic subsistence such as secondary education and high life satisfaction. Meeting these goals could require a level of resource use that is two to six times the sustainable level."

Co-author, Dr Andrew Fanning, also from the Sustainability Research Institute, said: "Our results suggest that some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, such as combatting climate change and its impacts, could be undermined by the pursuit of other goals, particularly those focused on growth or high levels of human well-being."

This study builds on research by the Stockholm Resilience Centre that identified nine environmental processes that regulate the planet and proposed safe "planetary boundaries" for each that—if persistently exceeded—could lead to catastrophic change. The planetary boundaries include issues such as , land-use change, and freshwater use.

The researchers distributed seven planetary boundaries among nations according to their share of global population, and then compared these boundaries to national resource consumption, after correcting for international trade.

At the same time, the study scored countries on 11 social objectives established in previous research on what it would mean for countries to develop in "safe and just" way. The objectives included healthy life expectancy, access to energy, and democratic quality among others.

The study benchmarked each country's resource use against the planetary boundaries, and mapped these alongside the social indicators. The mapping showed no country performed well on both the planetary and social thresholds.

Co-author Dr William Lamb, from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), said: "In general, the more social thresholds a country achieves, the more it exceeds, and vice versa.

"Although wealthy nations like the US and UK satisfy the basic needs of their citizens, they do so at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable. In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, such as Sri Lanka, fail to meet the basic needs of their people."

Co-author Dr Julia Steinberger, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, said "Radical changes are needed if all people are to live well within the limits of the planet. These include moving beyond the pursuit of economic growth in wealthy nations, shifting rapidly from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and significantly reducing inequality.

"Our physical infrastructure and the way we distribute resources are both part of what we call provisioning systems. If all people are to lead a good life within the planet's limits then these provisioning systems need to be fundamentally restructured to allow for basic needs to be met at a much lower level of use."

Explore further: Shale gas is one of the least sustainable ways to produce electricity, research finds

More information: Daniel W. O'Neill et al, A good life for all within planetary boundaries, Nature Sustainability (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0021-4

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14 comments

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Zzzzzzzz
5 / 5 (6) Feb 05, 2018
At some point we will have to face our planet's limits with regard tom sustainable human population level.... one way or another
doogsnova
2 / 5 (3) Feb 05, 2018
Z is right. With the Earth's population now over 8,844,128,002 on 31st December 2017 (midnight CET), we are fast approaching calamity. We must introduce a global halt and regulation of births of no more than 3 per woman. Arable land is decreasing. Fish populations are decreasing. Forests and rainforests are decreasing. Population is increasing. Pollution is increasing. Here is a comprehensive essay detailing our impact on the environment: https://billymeie...tion.pdf
Gigel
5 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2018
This is time for a new technological revolution. Developing cheap or efficient power sources (solar, breeder nuclear reactors) and efficient food sources (algae, insects, closed space farming) could lead to new, large amounts of resources, just like the shift from hunting to agriculture did.
Beethoven
not rated yet Feb 05, 2018
There is a limit to efficiency there is no limit to human growth.
and all production comes at a cost to nature.
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (6) Feb 05, 2018
At some point we will have to face our planet's limits with regard tom sustainable human population level.... one way or another

You think the rich are ever going to back down? They'd rather start killing off large swathes of the poor. Plenty of thugs...erm...armies around to do it for them, too.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (4) Feb 05, 2018
If you don't include immigration, I understand the populations of all advanced countries are nearly stable or shrinking. Population growth in the developing world is also slowing, and with a little help, could stabilize by mid-century.

For the time being, the focus should be on developing positive attitudes to do what we can to protect the environment and continue to develop technologies that are less harmful to the environment like wind, solar and fusion power (if we can ever get those darn tokamaks running).
MarsBars
3 / 5 (2) Feb 06, 2018
With the Earth's population now over 8,844,128,002 on 31st December 2017 (midnight CET)...

What is your source for that world human population figure, doogsnova? The current world population figure on the worldometers website a few minutes ago was 7,600,103,125 - still unsustainable, but more than 1.2 billion less than the figure you quote.
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2018

You think the rich are ever going to back down?


You think the rich are the main culprits in population growth?

It's called the malthusian problem, whereby through human nature, increasing availability of resources leads to increasing population rather than increased welfare. Hence, leveling out the differences between the rich and poor by redistributing actually causes a population boom.

So "eat the rich" is not really a solution to anything, except satisfying envy.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2018
None of us, who are afflicted with a conscience, avoid the burden of trying to save the biosphere from catastrophe.

Is there a solution? Probably not, we are very self-destructive monkeys.

However? As much as I detest the plutocrats. Their domination of the global economy and resources makes them all we have for leadership.

Tediously, I have made it clear that I am against the profligate wastage of attempting human colonization off Earth.

Aside from the flagrant brutality of destroying top-notch people for sordid profiteering. To the cheers of the comicbook dullards.

The other purpose my stand provides. Is to make it crystal clear to the wealthy that there is no escape from the Matricide. Even for their affluenzically entitled precious lives.

The message must be "We go down, they go down with us. We all go into the dark of extinction, together."

Once they get that message, then perhaps something will be salvaged from this mess.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2018
Is there a solution? Probably not, we are very self-destructive monkeys.

Tediously, I have made it clear that I am against the profligate wastage of attempting human colonization off Earth.


I share your concerns, but not your conclusions. Have you ever noticed that simple logic often fails us when it comes to biology and high-ordered systems like civilizations? For example, you push a machine harder and it breaks, you push a person harder and he/she may just get stronger. If we colonize Mars, you imply we do so to rationalize throwing away Earth. I come to the exact opposite conclusion. We are going to discover terraforming Mars is extremely difficult and even a well-terraformed Mars is not as much a paradise as Earth was. Venus will probably elude us for many centuries and the next planet to be terraformed is probably in a nearby star system. We are going to learn the hard way that Earth is precious.
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Feb 06, 2018
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Feb 07, 2018
Yes Mark, Extra-terrestrial colonization sounds like a wonderful goal for the human race to devote itself.

However, you are avoiding two important issues. If we did rehabilitate Mars? Before we can answer the question of why life failed there in the first place?

The Mars colony will fail. As did Roanoke, Jamestown, & Plymouth. Ghost towns and abandoned farms all over North America.

There is no evidence, none, that biological life can survive outside the Earth's Magnetosphere and Gravity Field. Certainly not long enough to reproduce and raise young.

And no, Centripetal Acceleration will not replace Gravitational Attraction.

Resolving those issues will not be accomplished with some hocus-pokus wave of a wand.

That is why, I am urging a more conservative path. Relying on robots and drones to create and build the extra-terrestrial infrastructure that will be needed if some brilliant scientists and crafty engineers do manage any methods resolving these key problems.
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Feb 08, 2018
"Yes Mark, Extra-terrestrial colonization sounds like a wonderful goal for the human race to devote itself."

- On the downside, sooner or later we will have no choice, so why wait? On the upside, the gains could be tremendous.

"However, you are avoiding two important issues. If we did rehabilitate Mars? Before we can answer the question of why life failed there in the first place?"

- Ask an exobiologist, but it seems pretty clear that macroscopic surface life failed because of the lack of liquid water, lack of a breathable atmosphere, radiation and cold. I am not sure what you are driving at here. BTW, I think it very likely we will find underground bacteria on Mars and it is very important that we make efforts to understand what is there.

Mark Thomas
not rated yet Feb 08, 2018
"The Mars colony will fail. As did Roanoke, Jamestown, & Plymouth. Ghost towns and abandoned farms all over North America."

- What makes Mars more analogous to failed colonies than successful colonization efforts such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, etc.?

"There is no evidence, none, that biological life can survive outside the Earth's Magnetosphere and Gravity Field. Certainly not long enough to reproduce and raise young."

- So you conclude the entire universe is lifeless except Earth? I think you should be prepared to be surprised then. The real problem is lack of evidence either way and the only way to solve that is to boldly go where no one has gone before.

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